Grandma of a Thousand Shoes

When I met Helen's nonna, I thought she was a fake. Real nonne had gardens full of tomato plants that weighed so much by August they had to be harnessed with seam binding to wooden stakes. Real nonne woke up early to pick the tomatoes and cooked them until they were more water than fruit. A real nonna spoke in one language to your mother and in another to you, and even then you couldn't always understand what she meant.

Helen's nonna spoke English all the time, to everyone. She did it in a smooth, slow way, like my fourth-grade teacher, Mrs. Johnson. If she said "white" or "wheel," she put her lips together and breathed out the "w" as if she were blowing a kiss or trying to whistle. Helen's nonna heated Swanson's Frozen Turkey Dinners on Friday nights. Helen called her nonna "grandmother," and I felt sorry for them both.

When I got older, I figured out that Helen's grandmother was authentic. My friend had every right to love her. But to my eight-year-old sensibility, no one came close to my nonna, and a large part of my allegiance had nothing to do with her accent or her tomatoes.

It had to do with her shoes.

I had access to about 30 pairs of size-5 platforms, wedgies, and mules. Though some of my sandbox cronies had dreams, they could not claim real high heels. Well before I'd mastered long division, I wore my grandmother's Papagallo patent-leather stilettos and indulged every chance I got. My grandfather had been a shoemaker and brought home samples. And if the truth be told, Nonna really wore a size 6.

Aside from her shoe closet, Nonna had another thing going for her: She considered me as wonderful as I considered her shoes, and she befriended me when most other adults preferred that I go get lost.

To her, each word I spoke - most especially the ones she didn't exactly understand - was an indication of my future stunning success. I think she loved my American-ness. The only problem was, she loved other kids and their potential for greatness, too. So, occasionally I had to share her.

"Oh, such nice girls!" was her opener to a pack of gum-chewing, senior-high flag-twirlers who walked by her front porch one day. These girls would have ignored me even if I were convulsing right in front of their lockers. Nonna was wearing her spectators - white summer pumps with blue trim. The twirlers probably thought her shoes looked weird.

"But so many books! How can you carry so many?" she called to them.

"I need a truck or a boyfriend," one of them said without breaking stride.

"No, you no worry about boy-friends. School is your job now," Nonna counseled, but the girls were well out of earshot.

I forgave Nonna these transgressions with strangers. But the unconditional love she showered on my male relatives was harder to take. There was my twin brother, who sopped up a lot of her attention, and little Nicky, my cousin and her youngest grandchild, who lived in the apartment across from hers.

"He ripped the arm off my Chatty Cathy. He killed her. And now I have to kill him," I said on one very long, rainy afternoon.

Nonna gathered the doll, in two pieces, from the kitchen floor and put her on top of the refrigerator, out of my reach.

"I want her back," I said.

"No. Little Nicky will take again. Help him be good."

She told me that we must help not only our boy cousins, but our brothers, our uncles, our fathers, and our future husbands. We must help them be good.

"Men are weaker than we are ... just don't ever let them know that you know it," she said in Italian. I wouldn't understand what she meant until decades later.

Nonna did not always follow this advice. When her father forbade her becoming a schoolteacher, she ran away. In southern Italy, in 1916, "teacher" meant "spinster," and my great-grandfather wanted his oldest daughter married and gone. There were four other children, all daughters, and all named Maria-something in honor of the Blessed Virgin.

Nonna would tell a more heartwarming story: She had come to America to wear a hat. The paesans cast an evil eye at young village women who dared to put on airs and cover their heads on Sunday mornings with anything but modest veils.

For years after she made her way from Calbria to Newark, N.J., Nonna wore a smart pillbox hat, white leather gloves, and navy blue kidskin slingbacks to work. She would remove them all, working from her head down, as she approached her sewing machine at the factory.

Nonna did try to help her husband be good. Yet he persisted in attending Socialist Party meetings and marching on Washington with labor unionists and Baptists.

HE died before I got to meet him, my grandfather. I understand a parish priest told Nonna that despite all her novenas and devout attendance, her husband's radical ideas had disqualified him from a church funeral.

Nonna put on her black velvet cloche, her black silk gloves, and her black suede ankle straps and marched to the rectory. Soon afterward, my grandfather had a Catholic mass, with an American flag near the altar, as he was a World War I vet.

Nonna had unwavering ideas about her own passing, too. One day, after I'd read her my Western Civ term paper, she offered detailed instructions about her last earthly outfit, right down to the earrings. She also said she wanted a nice Latin eulogy. When the time came, the priest did a good job. But had anyone asked me to say a few words, I would have talked about Nonna's coming to America to wear a hat. And I would have mentioned the pumps.

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